A giant has passed.  Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela born July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, South Africa, died on December 5, 2013 in Johannesburg.   

As US President Barack Obama noted in his tribute to Mandela on December 5th, “He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages.”  As true as that statement is, it is also worrisome. The Ages has a way of erasing complexity, overlooking inconguities, evading parodoxes, and of reducing everything in its wake to easily digestible caricatures amenable to soundbite summaries.  Mandela had nearly reached that iconic status during the final days of his life, and this process will surely accelerate with his passing.  Unfortunately, many of life’s most profound lessons are not simple truths, but rather instead lurk about in the interstitial regions between varying shades of gray.  Thus, while it is still fresh in my mind, let me reflect on three episodes that I think would better anchor the Mandela legend, more so than the emerging wooden image of a man who singlehandly pushed South Africa toward reconcilliation rather than revenge.

First, it is indeed clear that by the time Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 he had become the very embodiment of peace.  Everything about him, his persona, his pace, his policies all radiated peace.  However Mandela’s enduring power and legitimacy among constituents at the grassroots extended from the stance he had taken three decades earlier- he was willing to die for a free South Africa.  Having lost faith that passive and non-violent resistance would ever bear fruit, Mandela set up the armed wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).  He was a freedom fighter, he learned to make bombs, and supported the attack on the physical infrastructure that underpinned the power of the Apartheid government.   Even when captured and put on trial, he did not beg for leniency or forbearance.  Instead he appeared for sentencing in full African regalia, denounced the government as the aggressors, acknowledged that he was at war, and ready to serve his time as a prisoner of war and not as a criminal.  

Those images of Mandela as warrior, were the last live images many would see of him until his release 27 years later.  Words of his willingness to die for his ideals resonated and reverberated throughout cities and townships, and inspired sucessive waves of men, women and children to continue the struggle, despite the blood and the rising body count.  To reduce Mandela to the kindly old man ever urging peace, ever ready to forgive all, is to deny the fact that certain historical moments, certain historical conditions will only change with struggle.

Secondly, the Apartheid government did not release Mandela because of pangs of consciousness, a sudden awareness that Apartheid was evil, or even an epiphany that blood was bad for business.  Nor should we give all the credit to anti-apartheid movements in the US, Europe and elsewhere, as extremely valuable as they were. I lived in Africa and indeed in two frontline states during the most intense years of the global anti-apartheid movements, and it is clear to me that African contributions were immeasureable.  Some countries struggled against South Africa despite suffering economic strangulation, the blockade of transportation, the cut-off of energy flows, and even kidnappings and military assaults on their territory by South African forces.  There is plenty of credit to go around.  

Yet not nearly enough credit is heaped on the South African people themselves.  They are the true heroes, and the true liberators of Mandela.  It was they who sacrificed careers, schooling, life and limb to “make the townships ungovernable.”   Millions of nameless, faceless individuals, many who never saw or heard Nelson Mandela directly, many in fact born after he was incarcerated yet were inspired by the image and ideals of Mandela. The Ages is quick to forget The Masses.  Rarely are statues erected to The Masses. It is far easier to endlessly eulogize an icon than it is to tease out the causality and complex conditions under which the long oppressed rise up against their oppressors.

Thirdly, perhaps Mandela’s greatest gift to his nation was the act of stepping down after one term as president.  That act solidifies, in my mind at least, that Mandela’s true genius lay in his capacity to read the moment, to identify the constellation of political, economic and cultural factors at play at a given historical point, and to decide accordingly the role he should play.  It is the arc of Mandela’s life that history will be richer for remembering.  He knew when to be a warrior, when to be a peacemaker, and when to step away.  Life is not about selecting and steadfastly maintaining positions that all too quickly calcify with time.  It is about recognizing and adjusting to temporal shifts in the texture of day-to-day life.  

Despite the name, The Ages is actually not very good at dealing with time.  It hates to revisit, reinterpret and reanalyze its subjects.  It prefers timeless, cookie cutter images that can be brought out for annual celebrations, and then neatly stored away until the following year.  Hence, it is incumbent upon all of us who genuinely loved and were inspired by Madiba to rescue him from The Ages, to keep the whole of the man alive, to keep him embedded in real history and not to allow a decontextualized caricature to emerge and overshadow the real man.  Even in his final years Mandela was changing, re-reading the moment, teaching us new lessons and realizing the need to call attention to issues other than racism.  Combating obscene levels of global inequality became his final clarion call.

Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times … that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils. 

Millions of people in the world’s poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved, and in chains.  They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.

— Nelson Mandela, Tafalger Square, London, February 3, 2005

Rest well Madiba, assured that A Luta Continua

 Photograph by Peter Dejong, AP